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The case for a vote-by-mail election

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The economist Paul Krugman likes to talk about “zombie ideas,” those political proclivities that just won’t die, no matter how many times they are debunked and disproven. One thinks of trickle-down tax cuts, tariffs, the border wall. Now, in the fight for free and fair elections, another zombie horde shakes off its earthly shackles and rises anew. Nowhere is safe — not our courts, not our media, not the pages of The Daily itself. Attacks on vote-by-mail are once again pounding on the door of the national discourse, and they’ve come to eat the franchise. So let’s face these zombies head-on (as arranged by Stanford’s own Jeeven Larson) and see just how well they fare in the real world.

Vote-by-mail is vulnerable to fraud. 

Ah, fraud. That most resilient bugbear. Election security advocates have conjured up the specter of rampant cheating and California illegals stealing your ballots in every cycle since the turn of the century. To be sure, their story is compelling. But voter fraud is exceptionally rare according to just about everyone. Really. Every serious person agrees. It just is not a significant problem (even Larson’s own references say so). We can only imagine why this zombie keeps popping back up, but statistically, the question is settled. 

Vote-by-mail enables coercion.

The word “coercion” evokes images lifted straight from “Homeland.” Blackmail and deceit, smoke-filled rooms and dark-suited men, possibly a love interest and definitely some intrigue. In reality, Larson is referring to vote harvesting, the collection and submission of ballots by volunteers (famously abused by North Carolina Republican operatives in the 2018 midterms). Not much drama there, and the reality is still more mundane. Even if ballot harvesting was problematic, which it’s not, or in wide use, which it’s also not, the practice itself is entirely non-essential to a vote-by-mail election. Indeed, the mail aspect of vote-by-mail is an excellent way to prevent ballot harvesting, so it boggles the mind that anyone believes this is a persuasive line of reasoning.

Vote-by-mail risks lost votes and imprecision.

For all of the hype surrounding vote-by-mail’s ostensible inaccuracy, there isn’t much evidence of systematic error. Larson cites a Heritage Foundation dataset that claims about 19% of legally validated vote tampering since 1997 involved absentee ballots. Those numbers add up to a whopping 239 invalid votes over the last 23 years, or about 10 votes a year — hardly the stuff of scandal.

Larson also points to a 2010 study that shows ballots cast by mail have significantly higher loss rates than ballots cast in person. But that’s an argument for greater investment in our vote-by-mail apparatus, not less. If our ballots are to make it to the clerks, it might be useful to, say, fund the U.S. Postal Service or save states from bankruptcy, policies that aren’t in vogue on the conservative side of the aisle. I submit that anyone who purports to want every vote counted would encourage these most sensible of reforms, or at least acknowledge the “erroneous” effects holding an election during a pandemic might have on the outcome. Alas, Larson makes no mention of such considerations.

Vote-by-mail decreases minority turnout and increases partisan turnout.

It’s interesting that opponents of vote-by-mail use the same handful of decades-old papers to support their case. A cursory examination of Larson’s sources reveals a significant bias toward out-of-date research, often from expressly conservative think tanks. Did he miss the 2016 study concluding vote-by-mail has a large positive impact on participation, especially among minorities? Did he overlook reports from mere months ago confirming that vote-by-mail disproportionately increases turnout among moderates and the politically apathetic? Did he forget the recent findings that “low propensity voters … showed the greatest increase in turn-out in vote-by-mail counties”? 

Just an honest mistake, I’m sure, much like the assertion that universal absentee ballot programs are too electorally risky because postal workers “will encounter difficulty in impoverished, minority-dominated urban communities where the population is more nomadic.” Such racial implications are characteristic of many polemics against vote-by-mail, yet nothing could be further from the truth. African American and Latinx advocacy groups are some of the strongest proponents of a universal absentee ballot system, and many of the communities most damaged by mandatory in-person voting are majority-minority. So the charge that vote-by-mail will somehow depress turnout among people of color doesn’t hold water.

Vote-by-mail is very complicated.

This zombie isn’t really an argument at all, so I’d like to take this opportunity to correct Larson’s misinformation more broadly. First and foremost, vote-by-mail is wildly popular. An April 2020 survey found that 73% of Americans favor a no-excuse absentee ballot arrangement, and another observed that three-quarters of Democrats and half of Republicans support vote-by-mail. Second, electronic polling presents its own drawbacks and hazards, and paper ballots are easily the safest way to vote. Third, electoral procedures are decided on a county and state level. There isn’t a national standard, nor does the federal government have any control over a jurisdiction’s polling methods. Fourth, for all his hand-wringing about the logistics of a vote-by-mail election, Larson seems to skip right past the operational nightmare of physically casting a ballot in the midst of the worst public health crisis since the Spanish flu. We hardly had this voting thing figured out prior to coronavirus, and as the recent debacle in Wisconsin demonstrated, a pandemic makes it unimaginably more difficult to participate in democracy. 

Still, these views are far from radical. The performative fetishization of our voting systems finds itself well within the Republican mainstream. It’s ironic: The people waxing poetic about the sanctity of elections are the same people disenfranchising millions of Americans. The people fawning over a collective faith in the republic are the same people purging voter rolls indiscriminately. And the people railing against the evils of vote-by-mail are the same people insisting the massive risks posed by a COVID-19 election are, as Larson maintains, “unavoidable” and “must be taken when the stakes concern the presidency.” So I would argue that many of the individuals resurrecting these zombies don’t really think vote-by-mail will ruin the republic. I would argue that the purity of the American vote and the empowerment of the American voter are not high on their list of priorities. Their preoccupation with “legitimate” elections is nothing more than a political stalking horse, a socially acceptable shield for the kind of win-at-all-costs mentality that has dominated conservative thought for the last 12 years. 

I want to be clear: Criticism of vote-by-mail is not necessarily cynical. One can be both well-intentioned and wrong. But restrictions on the constitutionally mandated right to vote transcend honest disagreement, and the cementation of those restrictions in reactionary policy is not the product of a difference of opinion. This issue, as much as any other, reflects the massive and widening gulf between what is moral and what is convenient, what is real and what wins elections. On one side, we find suffrage, representation, a government for the people. On the other, we find deprivation, authoritarianism, a government in spite of the people. A choice between life and liberty isn’t a choice at all, and the idea that the Republican Party would prioritize its own perpetuation over the safety and wellbeing of its countrymen is antithetical to the concept of democracy itself.

If you don’t believe me, believe the president. Just a month ago, he declared that the implementation of a nationwide vote-by-mail program would mean “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” That too is a zombie idea, but I almost respect him for saying the quiet part out loud. Time and time again, those who would agree with Larson have proven that election security has less to do with the security of the electors and more to do with the security of the elected, the security of their seats. It was never about “the fabric of America’s voting system”; it was always about power. At least Trump had the guts to admit it.

Contact Sean Casey at spcasey ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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